Pacific Islander Death Rate From Covid Still The Worst In LA County (Though Not As High As Originally Thought)

Pastor Pausa Thompson, who spoke to us in April about COVID-19 deaths in the Pacific Islander community, leads a primarily Pacific Islander congregation in Compton. (Courtesy of Mel Ponder)

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As Los Angeles County contends with a surge in coronavirus cases, public health data indicates one group continues to die at a higher rate from the disease than any other group: Pacific Islanders.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department reports that the death rate for Pacific Islanders is 91 per 100,000 people, compared to the lowest rate: 22 per 100,000 for white residents.

Put another way, Pacific Islanders are dying at four times the rate of white people.

Pacific Islanders also have the highest case rate of any group: 2,350 per 100,000. For white residents it is 351 per 100,000.

Community leaders say that's no surprise given that many Pacific Islanders face a heightened chance of viral exposure because of their work in the service sector and a communal culture with multi-generational households and emphasis on group gatherings. Some in-person funerals reportedly continue, despite the pandemic.

"Pacific Islanders revere their family members that have passed," said Dr. Raynauld Samoa, an endocrinologist at the City of Hope who is leading national efforts to combat COVID-19 among Pacific Islanders. "So, I absolutely get the drive to want to show up for your deceased family members. But it's at what cost now, you know?"

At the same time, Samoa breathed a tiny sigh of relief that the death rate is not as high as the data indicated a few months ago. In April, it appeared that Pacific Islanders were dying at a rate 12 times higher than white residents.

The discrepancy can be attributed to data misclassification problems, said Paul Simon, chief science officer at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

The state found that the county had wrongly identified 14 people as Pacific Islanders when, in fact, a dozen of them were Filipino, one was Korean and one was Hispanic, Simon said.

It's not clear how the mistakes were made but Simon said there are a couple of junctures where that could have happened:

  • Hospital personnel could have incorrectly filled out the death certificate
  • The person inputting the information into the computer may have gotten it wrong

"These are often hospital staff filling these death certificates out," Simon said. "It could be the middle of the night. People are busy. There's all kinds of ways that error gets introduced."

Mistakes are usually not so pronounced in large data sets but in a population as small as the Pacific Islander community — roughly 19,000 in Los Angeles County — mistakes are magnified, Simon said.

Simon said his department has not had the bandwidth to investigate what happened with the Pacific Islander data because it's been overwhelmed by the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.

But even with the data errors, and the caveat that epidemologists consider the data for Pacific Islanders "unstable" because of the small data set, the disturbing trend still stands: coronavirus is attacking Pacific Islanders in a deeply disproportionate way.

"I would say the disparity is not getting worse, but it's still very significant," Simon said.

Dr. Raynald Samoa, an endocrinologist at City of Hope, heads a team of Pacific Islander leaders from around the country who are responding to the pandemic. (Courtesy of Nicholaus Arnzen)

Samoa said he has witnessed the pandemic spreading in his community.

He said he used to get one to two calls a week from a community member asking about the disease for themselves or for a family member. Lately, it's been five to seven.

He said that when the higher death rate for Pacific Islanders in L.A. County was reported as 12 times higher than white residents, it was alarming. But he said it also helped crystallize a call to action for the community.

The national task force he is leading is addressing high infection rates emerging in large Pacific Islander communities not only in California but also Illinois, Washington and Arkansas.

"The numbers (for Pacific Islanders in L.A. County) may not have been accurate but it still showed a disparity and it was consistent with what was going on in the rest of the country," Samoa said.